Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-21: Join the Mad King’s Joust

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When Ane returns to the camp, there’s quite a commotion around one end. People have gathered in a large, oblong circle, faces turned expectantly toward the center. The din of chatter raises high on the air, and alosins chuff loudly.

There also appear to be… banners? At least, Ane’s reasonably certain that the hanging clothes were intended to look like banners.  An even more motley collection has been draped all over what was probably Vasht the knife thrower’s wagon. Then, up top, a seat of some sort has been placed there.

Vasht’s wagon looks like a very odd nucleus for the whole thing, really.
And it all has a certain air about it.
You might call it “whimsy.” 

Oh.

Oh no.

What did the fweep-fweep do now? She’d thought Vasht was safe — if there’s one word she’d never use to describe him, it’s “whimsical.” But now there’re banners? And a group? With tables? She drops the things she’d collected from the undercity, a chair leg and hound’s skull, in her haste to go see what level of fuckery the caravan and her mind-controlling pet abomination have gotten up to in her absence.

As it turns out, they got up to quite a lot.

Ane has to push past the throng of observers, which is growing thicker by the minute. As soon as she finds a spot with a low shoulder, she darts her gaze around…

The first thing she spies is a scraped-bare strip of land, save for a rope fence running down the middle. When her gaze pans left, she sees… an alosin. Though that’s hardly the strange part. On the alosin is Brair, wearing a sheet as a sash and a large, ashen pot upon the top of his head. It sits jauntily on his brow, oddly complimenting the stark, firm expression on his bronzed face. The fire-slinging callosian today wields something else instead: a tall, wooden pole with a pillow tied around one end. 

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

There’s another alosin, and this one is carrying Vasht. He has a curtain slung about his chest, in a most barbaric fashion (if barbarians had a thing for Valistean lace). His many sharp, sweeping tattoos paint a rather ominous picture; this, complete with the kettle perched upon his head, make him the perfect “dark knight.” He’s wielding a pillow-spear, similar to Brair’s. He also wears an expression of grim determination, though there’s a glimmer of chagrin in his eyes. It’s the look of a man that’s gotten himself into something, knows he looks ridiculous, and just has to commit to the bit.

And lording over the center, in the midst of the “banners” lining Vasht’s roof is an old oaken chair, perched imperiously right in the middle. Upon it sits a certain round, fuzzy creature, with an air of comical gravitas. Its little beak-mouth is set firmly, as if it too is pretending to take this all very seriously. It’s not bouncing or fweep’ing at the moment, but it nearly vibrates with an excited sort of energy. Its barely contained glee is almost childlike, under its  veneer of pretend-play. 

It has a small, yellow prop-crown on top of its head.

It is King Fweep-Fweep the Whimsical. This is his joust.

Ane groans to herself immediately before she begins to try to shoulder her way through the crowd. Brair and Vasht can have their pillow-fight for the moment — she is going to retrieve that fweep-fweep before someone loses an eye (or an ear, a wing…).

As Ane makes her way towards the wagon, the festivities begin to unfurl in earnest.

Jiselmo, standing in the center of the lanes, steps out wearing the full costume of a royal herald. He even has a long, brass horn with a flag on the end to match. 

“Hear ye, hear ye,” he calls out, “We gather today for the match of a lifetime! Today, two knights shall do battle for their honor. In the blue corner…”

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

“SER BRAIR! Honorable knight of flame, lord of the pints, baron of the exploding wagon!”

Cheers erupt while Brair trots his alosin in a small circle, pounding his chest and waving his spear.

“And in the red corner… SER VASHT! The wicked dark knight, lord of edges, slayer of boards and fruits alike!”

Vasht receives a mixture of cheers and boos, as villains are wont to, though they’re all mixed in with laughter. Vasht, for his part, foregoes the grandstanding and instead raises his spear and points it towards Brair — a challenge!

Jiselmo cuts in, “Once more, simple rules! A knight who is lanced must remove their sash. A sashless-knight who is struck is DEFEATED! And if a knight falls off his alosin, he is both DEFEATED and VERY SILLY…”

Ane gently pinches the bridge of her nose. She knew the little thing was persuasive, but this. Half of the participants here have to be indulging it for fun. There’s no way something the size of an appo and a half could turn the caravan into this.

“Hey!” She calls sternly up to the fweep-fweep, “Either you come down, or I’m coming up.” 

Somehow.

“Fwip fwip fwip fwiiip fwip… fwep fwep…” The thing squeaks and whistles, babbling on, as if imitating a person’s speech. It doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to Ane. In fact… is it acting like a king? The crowd is silent, as if it’s officiating the start of the battle.

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

Cheers erupt as the alosins huff, scuffing their feet on the dirt. Then in a burst of activity, they LEAP! Both knights charge at each other valiantly, Brair in his ash-pot helm, Vasht wearing his kettle. The thunderous sound of galloping alosins fills the air, as a large dust cloud kicks up behind their springing legs.

The fighters lean low, gaining swiftness, ersatz pillow-spears held tightly to their sides and braced in brawny arms. The alosins leap with their heads low, charging for speed. 

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

Then, in a flurry of motion, the men pass and the spears flash into action! Brair goes for a very straightforward charge, but Vasht… oh, he’s a dark knight. And being the deft fighter he is, he ducks aside at the last second and thrusts his spear! His muscled arms tighten with tension as he swings his ‘weapon,’ striking Brair straight in the stomach. He takes the full weight of the alosin’s charge, coupled with the deftness of Vasht’s strike.

“Bwaaaahfuck!” Brair cries out, sent sailing off the (in hindsight, not-all-that-fast) alosin. He falls back while it charges onward, and he collides into the spongy tunnel ground with a thump.

At the other end of the lanes, Vasht brings his alosin to a stop. He then plants the haft-end of his spear in the ground, stands tall, and puffs out his mighty tattooed chest. 

“SER VASHT IS VICTORIOUS! A DECISIVE BLOW,” Jiselmo calls out, frantic with excitement.

He then toots his brass horn to make it official, while Brair sneakily wanders off to find a pint for his bruised pride and his jostled rear. 

“Right. I’m coming up,” Ane says, as she begins attempting to find hand- and footholds among all of the clothing hanging from Vasht’s wagon. If he ever did manage to find the time to do his shirt laundry, he’s going to have to do it again — the kicked-up dust from the alosins has not done them any favors. 

When she arrives at the top, the little fweep-fweep is looking quite fat and sassy in his “throne.” It’s currently rocking back and forth, cheeks pooched, looking very satisfied with itself. It’s still wearing the little fake crown, though it’s slid over its little tufted head at an angle.

Down below, the aforementioned actor is now busking the camp followers, guards and passers-by that clumped around this event. He moves amongst the thunderous cheer and applause, shouting. 

“Thank you, thank you! We accept appreciation in the form of CURRENCY and LOTS OF BOOZE. Brair seems a bit sore, so we won’t be getting more any time soon!”

Jiselmo!” Ane shouts down to him in horror. It’s bad enough the fweep-fweep is responsible for this without him capitalizing on it for liquor and coin. “What the Voi– Alright, you know what?” Perched atop Vasht’s wagon beside the makeshift throne, she reaches out to pluck the crown from the tiny creature’s head. 

“Fwep fuip fep… Fip f– FEEP!” It cheeps, eyes wide with alarm as its divested of its authority. Almost immediately, the fweep-fweep seems aware that the jig is up. Rather than attempt to reason with Ane or feign sleep, it instead lets out a big, gaseous “FWIPPPT!” and jets off into the nearest piece of laundry — a pair of Vasht’s britches — to hide.

Ane holds the tiny crown, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“No crown, no kingdom. Those’re the rules,” she admonishes the fweep-fweep. For now, she allows it to hide — from the sound of things, whatever ensorcelment it worked seems to be breaking, giving her an opportunity to survey the damages from up on high.

Jiselmo rides out of this place on a tide of money and beer, taking the crowd with him to boisterously retell this event around a fire and a barrel of something brown and potent. 

This leaves Vasht standing in the middle of the field, contemplating his life choices. Furrowing his brow, he plucks the kettle off of his head and throws it to the soil with a clatter. He turns to the alosin, giving him a one-eyed look of sympathy. Then he looks up towards the fweep-fweep. 

Vasht rubs the side of his head, thoughts clearing, and then he sees Ane. His face goes slightly pale. 

Ah, yes. This is what social mortality feels like. 

What,” Ane says, arms held wide in bewilderment, “Happened?” 

She knows what happened. The same thing that got her to dress the fweep-fweep in makeup and jewelry and a tiny stone slipshell hat happened. What she does not know is how the creature escaped its cage and managed to affect the entire caravan.

The dark knight, Ser Vasht, stands dumbfounded. He doesn’t respond immediately, instead tossing his pillow-spear aside and crossing his arms behind his back. It’s like some last-ditch attempt to retain the scraps of his dignity. 

He calls back up to Ane, “Your ‘king’… and also, Jiselmo!” His expression firms. “Yeah, Jiselmo’s definitely to blame for at least part of this…”

“Yes,” Ane says with a slow nod and the tone of voice one might use to ask a small child why their mittens are currently floating in the privy, “But how did the ‘king’ get from safely inside a cage to… to…” She makes a flailing gesture toward Vasht’s britches, which are currently trembling in a perplexing fashion.

Rather than answer immediately, Vasht wanders aside and gathers up the thing’s cage. Its door swings open tellingly. With it in hand, Vasht spreads his rows of wings, catches the air, and flaps his way up to meet Ane on the roof of his wagon.

Once he’s safely landed, he dusts off his shoulder.

“Well, I first meant to keep it in my wagon… but when I saw it, it did something.” He sighs, staring at the wriggling pair of pants. “It kept giving strange ideas, and some would’ve wrecked my things.” He coughs. “Important things. Keepsakes. So…”

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

“I took it outside, it got ahold of Brair and convinced him to open the cage.” He explains all this in a rather careful, measured fashion, as if that can make the result a bit less silly.

Ane rubs a spot in the center of her forehead. With her free hand, she waves at the tiny, quivering pile of underpants and fweep.

“So it’s Brair’s fault, you’re saying,” she concludes. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Just… Put it back in the cage so I can get it somewhere where it can do less damage, I’m not going to go rooting through your underthings.” 

“Well, not his entirely. I should’ve kept him from opening it, though my back was turned. After that, he said he ought to take care of it, feed it some of his booze…” Vasht goes on, walking towards the pair of waggling trousers. He takes it by the legs, positions the waist at the mouth of the box, and begins to gently shake the garment. Soon the fweep-fweep pops out, tumbling into the cage, whereupon Vasht shuts the small door.

He takes in a breath, and continues, “So, we got into an argument… Jiselmo strolled by, and suggested we decide it with a contest. Then, a while later, I look up and this is happening,” he says, gesturing towards the scene laid out beneath the two of you. 

Ane shakes her head as she takes the cage, muttering to herself.

“Can’t go anywhere, Animus alive… At any rate, thanks for keeping an eye on it. Sorry about your laundry. And,” she nods toward his ‘knightly’ getup, “All that.”

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.”

Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

A faint grin tugs at the edge of her lips, in turn. “A tiny tyranny, complete with bloodsports. Out of curiosity, though — why did your laundry end up all over the outside of your wagon?”

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof. “If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

She pulls her lips inward, pressing them tightly together in her teeth to keep from laughing outright. Instead, she manages a stiff nod and a subtle quiver of her shoulders before she turns away from Vasht (and his “heraldry”) and begins the process of climbing down the dangling shirts, belts, and trousers.

As she does so, he leans forward and aims a few pokes at her side. “I see your giggle fit,” he saccuses. “Making a getaway with your tiny trouser bandit,” he adds, watching Ane flinch to avoid being poked as she clambers down his wagon. He hops down himself shortly after.

“Hey! Careful — some of us don’t have wings. Or a head harder than that kettle to break a fall with,” she chastises him as she disembarks from a muslin shirt. 

He crosses his bare arms, regarding her dryly from the bottom. “Well, I can help with that. There’s a spare kettle over there, for your safety.”

“Wouldn’t fit without crumpling my ears. Anyway, thanks again, Ser Knight.” 

“At your service. Or something,” he agrees, offering a sardonic half-bow.

With the fweep-fweep safely in its cage, she makes her way back to where she deposited the hound’s skull and chair leg she found earlier. The chair leg is useless to her now — let it sit here and raise questions in whatever hapless wanderer finds it next — but she has a lot of soaking and cleaning to do before the skull is in a keepable condition.

Which means, unfortunately for him, she needs to bother Brair (and his wounded pride).

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-20: Escape the Tatter-Men

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(Continued directly from prior entry)

There’s that vague sense of warmth resting in her palm, much as it was with the slipshell. The face of the loothine, once solemn, now seems… steady? Determined? Perhaps it even shows a sort of welcome, a silent acceptance. Gone is that sense of frenzied despair, of feeling lost and out of place in the world of men. Its eyes show not peace, but resolve.

A howl rings out, bouncing off the cave walls. The voice is thick, proud, and haunting as it echoes from places unseen. All at once, the leaves of the underworld seem to unfurl. The spring bubbles with life, and a steady mist recedes from its shores.

The corpse of the loothine also seems to change, though only subtly… Whereas before its paws were in the midst of hurried digging, now they are at rest. Even more strangely, the claw-bones are now folded over-top of one another. The vacant skull rests upon them, as if pillowing its head beside the warmth of the spring. 

The change has a dizzying, dreamlike quality, enhanced by the steam of the spring. Ane is tempted to remain there, to soak in more of the sense of calm and resolve permeating the very air of the place, but now is not the time. The assassin and the rag-men are still making their perambulations on the roof and in the streets beyond, and, however serene this place may seem right now, it isn’t safe

She casts a hum over the resting loothine. The carcass seems relaxed now, but something seems wrong about separating it from the carving. Ane can’t take an entire hound corpse with her, though…

Moments later, she begins navigating her way back through the ragged streets, this time kept company by an emerald carving and a loothine skull on the end of a stick. The shrub-stem she pressed into service is a bit wobbly, but it works well enough. With luck, it also makes her look deranged enough to be left alone — there’s definitely no way she can go scaling any walls with a stick in her hand. 

However mad she may seem, the path still leads straight through half a dozen rag-men. As she approaches the mouth of the alley, walking in the open, the ones with the abstract masks press back behind the others. The jagged-marked ones step forward, their shasii bodies almost unrecognizable by emaciation. They bar the path, and one or two even crouch low, placing their hands to the dirt… as if they’re readying to pounce.

They shout and growl in voices as ragged as their masks. It’s in some foreign language — guttural, profane, thick with malice.

 

Ane inhales a deep, tense, hissing breath.

Looks like it didn’t work.

She can’t make out what they say, but their postures are unmistakable. She stands there, with her skull on a stick, humming over the seething group barring her path. Now what? She has no weapons, unless she plans on hitting someone with a loothine head. She has no magic. She doesn’t even speak their language.

Ane squares her shoulders and marshals her nerve… and flees into one of the shacks. 

Outside is the sound of scuffling feet, shouts, and frenzied puffing breaths. The rag-faces dash after her, coming to a skidding stop outside the broken shack.

The room is dark, but Ane can see easily… though it’s a lot to take in on short notice. There’s a broken-down wooden chair, a tattered cot with moldy down, a few earthenware pots, and a gaping hole in the wall on the other side of the room. There’s a door into this place, too, but it seems broken beyond use, jammed into its frame with rust and grime. There’s also a book, some copper silverware, and a rotten hunk of meat covered in both flies and walks.

Ane takes as little time to scout her surroundings as she can get away with before she lunges for the first available opening — she can worry about navigating her way back up afterward, if she manages to lose the group. As she rushes past the mildewed, decaying contents of the shack, she throws whatever she passes behind her to slow them up. Pots, the chair, anything her hands pass near enough to grab flies behind her into a shattered heap. The chair seems to fall apart as soon as she touches it, and her hand comes away still holding a single splintered chair leg with a crude, rusty nail hooking out from one end.

She has a sneaking suspicion she should keep it.

There are curses and crashes behind her, as the first rag-man dashes in and topples over the chair. His emaciated body is sent crashing into the wall, while two others push in past him, still in pursuit.

The next room is equally bare, though it features an old larder filled with garbage and an earthenware pitcher of sour wine. There isn’t even a hole this time.

“Voirrh- damin!” The man behind her snarls, dashing into the room, cursing in some bastard cant of a language. His bony hands are raised, groping like claws, giving only a second to react.

And the pitcher of sour wine flies behind her, accompanied by a soft whistle of air over its mouth. He takes it on the jaw, shattering the poor pottery as he goes crashing backwards. In the moment it buys her, Ane charges at the far wall — she doesn’t think she’ll be able to crash through it, but it’ll be something to get her back up against when more of them pour through the doorway.

Oh, nope, nevermind. She does crash through it, intending to or otherwise. 

Construction is pretty shoddy down here. 

 She finds herself stumbling into the next shanty, now a fair ways past where the chase began. More shouting comes from behind, where the remaining rag-men are forced to clamber past the first two. 

At least, all that did chase her…

 

The loothine figure pulses in Ane’s hand, and she feels a moment of clarity:  olfactory clarity. She can track the trails of the unwashed, downtrodden assailants as if their scent were wisps of smoke upon clean air. One of those wisps leads straight ahead, through the gap into the next shack… There a mass of it is huddled down, hiding behind the wall, lying in wait.

To Ane’s left is the door back out into the alley, merely a square of boards resting on one hinge. She doesn’t smell anyone out there, for the moment. This is fortunate in many ways, as having an enhanced sense of smell down here is, at best, a mixed blessing.

She trusts in the little emerald carving and whatever strangeness it seems to have wrought in her. There will be time to investigate it further later. 

Maybe with the slipshell and some puffroot, she thinks to herself in a moment of grim humor.

For now, Ane rushes at the door. She’ll be able to move more quickly out there, if nothing else.

When Ane dashes out, she has at least ten feet in both directions of clear alleyway. Behind her, towards the grove, there are two more of the assailants. They’re the ones with the crescents and helices about their masks, esoteric and brutal markings. Instead of giving chase, they’ve instead crouched down and begun to chant. If it’s a language, it’s not something Ane recognizes.

Ane has a clear line towards somewhere that isn’t this smear of a street, and she goes for it.

Her pursuers are no match for her relative health and fitness, and even as they scrabble after her, they quickly fall behind. As Ane rounds the corner, she can hear a sharp, blunt crack. As soon as the echo fades, there’s another sharp strike. First one, then another, and another… Five in total.

It seems they, too, have trouble surviving on these streets. And their friend up on the rooftops just received the perfect distraction to pick them all off, one by one by one…

Soon after, Ane is left with a moment to breathe. She stands safe in some alleyway, carrying the skull, the loothine figure, and a broken chair leg. The rest of the city is now open to her, and as sure as she saw the scents of the rag-faces, she can see her own as well. For now, though, she doubles over to catch her breath. While the rag-faced men hadn’t caught up with her, a couple of days of puffroot smoking certainly has. It’s telling that they weren’t able to outrun her — they must be even worse off than they look.

Once she’s pulled herself together, eased her burning lungs, and slowed her hammering heart, Ane begins to make her way ever upward, toward the brighter (and less fragrant) parts of the city. 

 

After some long walking and some deep sniffing, Ane soon finds her way back up to the first atrium of S’varga. It feels like a wholly different city, with all the towering edifices, stunning vistas, and artistic reliefs that were once expected. Unlike the third or fourth atrium far below, this one seems far more interested in catering to a wanderer’s whims. There’s another market just down the road, with many stalls carrying food and produce… Then there’s a plaza off to the left, with a number of tunnel-stone storefronts all carved side-by-side. There’s also the occasional public house, fine dining, and the rare puffroot-ery.

Unlike the deprived lands below, “this” S’varga is fully willing to cater to a paying customer’s needs. Unfortunately, Ane has no coin, and only a carved loothine hound and a dirty skull to show for her trouble. She gives the plaza a look of scorn mixed with longing, as she turns to head out of the city and back to the caravan.

It’s probably for the best. Ane might look a tad out of place with her skull-on-a-stick anyway.